Meet Dr Grazia Gunn: Visionary for the avant-garde arts

“New ideas, if nurtured, can open up new vistas,” says Dr Grazia Gunn, gazing across the Yarra River from her home in Southbank, central Melbourne. “I went around the world looking at current art for possible acquisition.”

Over the course of six decades, this Cairo-born daughter of French-speaking Greek and Italian parents has keenly influenced access to, and attitudes towards, contemporary art in Australia.

It’s partly thanks to Gunn that the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra – where she was curator of current international art from 1981 to 1989 – contains major works by the iconic likes of Louise Bourgeois, Cindy Sherman and German avant-gardist Joseph Beuys.

Under Gunn’s directorship (1989 to 1991), the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) in Melbourne became a multidisciplinary hub for artists, photographers, designers and architects, and an environment that enabled discovery and encouraged diversity and positive change.

“It was a wonderful little cottage in the Botanic Gardens,” says Gunn of ACCA, which moved in 2002 to a purpose-built architectural building in the arts precinct. “I decided the gallery would be a laboratory of ideas, a space where artists could do what they wanted. In one room they could draw directly on the walls. Another room was for performance art. We had film nights, talks and lectures by visiting artists and curators.

“We installed exhibitions such as Inland, curated by Robert Owen, which challenged audiences to think about the way cultural identity is connected to the landscape.”

Grazia Gunn, pioneer of avant-garde art.
Gunn has had a huge impact on contemporary art in Australia.

Formative years

Gunn’s penchant for trailblazing was instilled early, in Egypt, where she lived until the age of 15, enjoying a classical education in history and literature, and speaking several languages. It was a privileged upbringing of expat clubs and domestic help but a lifestyle, nonetheless, with grit and edge.

My life was lived in the desert,” she says. “Each Sunday I would ride a horse around the pyramids then have lunch and a swim in a hotel pool. The gold of the sand and the blue of the sky have always stayed in my mind."

Her family arrived in Melbourne in 1952. Art helped the young Grazia adjust. In 1958 she happened upon a solo exhibition of surrealist work by Barry Humphries at the Victorian Artists Society – “a wonderful introduction to art in Australia”.

She enrolled to train as an artist at the National Gallery Art School under John Brack, whose paintings of urban Australian life in all its mundanity proved both controversial and influential.

"John Brack was the best of teachers. He would teach you, then stand aside and let you discover your own way of doing things. He’d engage us on all the arts, including music."

Blue-sky thinking

Opening minds, and the doors of public galleries, in an era where funding was scant and most senior roles went to men, needed Gunn’s brand of blue-sky thinking. In 1975 she assisted Patrick McCaughey in establishing the Monash University Gallery in the visual arts department at Clayton, on the seventh floor of the Menzies Building. (It is now the Monash University Museum of Art in Caulfield.)

“Our collection included Peter Booth and Robert Hunter, and we commissioned Fred Williams to paint the portrait of Sir Louis Matheson, the Vice-Chancellor. You can imagine how difficult it was installing exhibitions of paintings that wouldn’t fit in the lift; we had to walk oversized paintings up seven flights of escalators.”

Opening hearts to avant-garde art

The 70s were a time of radical change in art practice in Australia. “Our exhibitions were so good that people came from outside, all the way to Clayton, to see them." However, she notes, “Change is not readily accepted by the general public."

She pauses. “But then I’d lecture during lunch hour on Dadaism, say, and after about 20 minutes you would see people relax and start listening, which was always very rewarding.”

Embracing change

In 1991 Gunn and her late husband, renowned academic Professor Ian Donaldson, moved to Scotland, where she studied Islamic art and architecture at the University of Edinburgh. They then moved to Cambridge, where she taught courses on modernism in the university’s art history department.

After 15 years in the UK they returned to what felt like a different Australia. “The younger generation of artists were exploring new worlds, opening new ways of thinking.”

In 2013 Gunn completed a PhD at Monash on the modernisation of Egypt in the 19th century. “I wanted to take time out from art, go in a completely different direction,” she says.

Today, the projects continue: Gunn is currently writing a book on the NGA and its visionary first director, James Mollison, whose boundaries-down legacy she sees in her favourite Australian contemporary artists: Brook Andrew, Christian Capurro, Helen Johnson, Nicholas Mangan and Tom Nicholson.

“When I arrived back, I’d never heard of them, but I have been following their work ever since. They interpret colonialism, the environment, culture and nature. They embrace change, which is key.

“Everything changes,” says Gunn, smiling again. “Art. Life. It’s just how it is.”